Stages of Subscription, 1880–1930
Franks, Matthew Scott
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AbstractSubscription redistricted turn-of-the-century British and Irish theater audiences in seemingly contradictory ways, alternately appealing to coteries or crowds. At a time when women, the working classes, and the Irish were advocating for greater political representation outside the theater, subscribers circumvented the Lord Chamberlain and London commercial theater managers in order to legislate repertoires and policies on the rest of the public’s behalf. Printed subscription ephemera created virtual stages on which subscribers could enact and reimagine their social relationships, whether by pinning their tickets together in order to secure adjoining seats, or by crowding newspaper columns with letters protesting unfair treatment from theater managers, or simply by reading their name—or a name—next to others on a list.
By listing plays in programs, prospectuses, and annual reports, private subscription clubs such as the Incorporated Stage Society assembled the very idea of a modern dramatic repertoire. Membership lists gendered club playgoers as unmarried women—precisely the demographic the Lord Chamberlain most sought to protect. Although metropolitan managers characterized provincial playgoers as pupils to be taught, patients to be nursed, or savages to be civilized, public subscription repertory theaters in Glasgow, Dublin, and Liverpool challenged these analogies by representing repertory audiences as “citizen” shareholders. Writing pseudonymous letters to newspaper editors, playgoers variously identified as clerks, schoolboys, dockers, and suffragists, staking claim to the day-to-day running of what they considered to be “Citizens’ Theatres” and “public institutions,” even though the theaters technically were private. George Bernard Shaw, Henrik Ibsen, St. John Hankin, John Galsworthy, Arthur Wing Pinero, and other late-Victorian and Edwardian playwrights used subscription lists as stage props to smuggle the public plot into the private drawing room, helping to explain how so-called “social drama” was able to bring large crowds to the stage while keeping casts small. Edward Gordon Craig’s theatrical little magazine The Mask separated “Theater” as subject from “theater” as building, launching an idea of World Theater that reflected the journal’s international subscribers as far afield as Syria, South Africa, Bolivia, and Japan even while Craig tried to convince English readers to give him a literal theater of his own.
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